The Original Mardi Gras Wasn't in New Orleans, It Was in Mobile, Alabama
When you think of Mardi Gras, you likely think of New Orleans with its lax drinking laws, beads and Bourbon Street. The Big Easy has a long and illustrious history with Fat Tuesday, but it’s not the birthplace of the celebration in America. For that, you have to go about 150 miles east to Mobile, Alabama.
On Mardi Gras, clusters of costumed people travel from the banks of Mobile Bay on Government Street, up old and tightly crowded Dauphin Street, and into the center of the city. The secret societies that dominate the celebration organize themselves on floats, just as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did before them. Crowds along the street cheer them on and marvel at the costumes, catching trinkets and MoonPies thrown from down high.
Fewer balconies line the streets of Mobile than New Orleans, and fewer tourists come to the city for Mardi Gras, but the look and feel is familiar. There are kings and queens, princesses and debutants. Mobile’s Mardi Gras drinking scene lacks 24-hour bars and a rich cocktail history like New Orleans, but it has its own perks. People can buy 16-oz to-go drinks in plastic and styrofoam cups from licensed bars and restaurants in the downtown district. MoonPies get more attention than cocktails, but bars make MoonPie-inspired cocktails like the ice cream heavy Chrissy and MoonPie Martinis.
“There is no way to truly tell you what it’s like. You have to experience it,” Steve Joynt, who runs Mobile Mask, the Mardi Gras guide for the area, tells Supercall. “From parades to balls to block parties and parties in private homes, Mardi Gras is what each individual makes it.” Joynt also adds, “Mobile’s Mardi Gras is different from others in a thousand different ways, and it’s the same in a few very important ways: It’s a community celebration and an excuse to come together, enjoy each other’s company and have some fun.”
Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to ancient Rome and pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When the Roman Catholic Church rose to power, Church leaders were looking for ways to make it easier for pagans to adopt the faith. Rather than the winter and spring festivals, they encouraged a carnival on the day before Lent, which starts 46 days before Easter.
The practice migrated to other countries with large Catholic populations at the time like France, Germany, Spain and England. Traditionally, people would binge eat and drink, scarfing down all the meat, eggs, milk and cheese in their home, the History Channel describes. The gorging was celebratory, since fish and fasting were close to the only things on the menu until Easter. The practice came to be called Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” in France.
The first Mardi Gras in the U.S. was in 1699. On March 2 of that year, a French Canadian explorer with a mouthful of a name, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, landed on the coast of present-day Louisiana. The spot is about 60 miles south of where New Orleans would eventually be founded, and Bienville named the place “Pointe du Mardi Gras,” because of the impending holiday. The crew celebrated, though it was likely a quieter celebration than today.
In 1702, Bienville founded another town, Fort Louis de la Louisiane. The small settlement celebrated the first official Mardi Gras in what is now the United States in 1703. Fort Louis de la Louisiane eventually turned into Mobile, Alabama, and served as the first capital of the original Colony of French Louisiana. The city of New Orleans, for comparison, wasn’t even established until 1718, 15 years after the first Mobile Mardi Gras.
It’s not all cheer and good will, though. Alabama’s history—all of its history—is wrapped up in the celebration. As recently as last year, there were two parades: one predominantly white, one predominantly black. A photo essay by Damon Winter published in The New York Times in 2017 contrasts the two parades side by side. The predominantly black parade skips the waterfront district and trails through the Fisher neighborhood instead. Meanwhile, a secret society called the Mistresses of Joe Cain holds a predominantly white parade on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday to honor a Confederate soldier who they say reinvigorated Mardi Gras celebrations after the Civil War.
A documentary called The Order of Myths explores the division in detail. Today, all people are welcome to participate in the downtown celebration, Charles Dean writes for AL.com. Yet, decisions about who gets to ride on floats and who are crowned the kings and queens are dictated by longevity in organizations, so two parades are still held.
Mobile isn’t alone in this regard, of course. New Orleans has its fair share of racial tensions surrounding Mardi Gras, and has for years. Floats are usually all white or all black, and the Krewe of Zulu traditionally wear blackface during the parade. A long history can lead to a complicated present with anachronistic practices and vestigial customs.
The French, Spanish, British and, eventually, Americans all came through and left their mark on Mobile, changing the way in which the festival is held. Celebrations waxed and waned over the years as the economy rose and fell, wars came and went, but still, Mardi Gras lives on.
“What makes it stand out is how long we’ve been doing it and how much it permeates the city,” Joynt says. “On Fat Tuesday, kids get off from school, college classes are canceled and it’s a holiday for city employees.”
If you want to see the type of Mardi Gras shown in photos and movies, you go to New Orleans. If you want the original, you go to Mobile.